This article is by staff writer Kristin Wong.
I get frustrated when people don't understand what it means to be frugal. A few criticisms of frugality I've come across:
Frugality is a waste of time.
Frugality distracts you from earning more money.
Frugal people deny themselves of any enjoyment.
I've already written in detail about how these arguments are silly. They might apply to being cheap, but they don't apply to being frugal.
The point of being frugal
My two favorite splurges are dining out and travel. Over the past few months, I've splurged quite a bit. One night, driving home from dinner with a friend, a little voice in my head said:
“Kristin, you really need to start cutting back. Go home and look at your budget, I bet it's bad. I bet your checking account is getting dangerously low.”
When I went home and checked out my accounts, everything was fine. Despite being a little spend-happy lately, I had considerably more money in my accounts than I expected. “How is this possible?” I wondered, and then I realized: it's just me being frugal.
As I've seen so many frugal enthusiasts point out: It pays to save money on the things you don't care about, so you can spend it on the things you enjoy. To me, that's what frugality is all about. It's not about depriving myself. It's about being able to spend my hard-earned money without worrying about wrecking my budget.
No matter my earnings, without frugality, my lifestyle would catch up to my income, and I wouldn't be able to enjoy guilt-free spending on the things I love.
Anyway, instead of simply complaining (again) about the myths of frugality, I thought I'd put my money where my mouth is, so to speak. Frugality doesn't have to be time-consuming, distracting or painful. I've put together a list of simple, painless ways I save money in every category of my budget.
— Pay the premium up front: This doesn't save a huge amount of money, but it takes zero extra time. I simply type a few extra digits into the “amount” field when I pay my bill online. Then, I don't have to worry about it for six months — plus I get an instant discount.
I suppose you might want to compare the savings with what you could earn if you were to invest that amount, but it's probably not going to be worth it, as you'd have to pay a monthly premium anyway.
— Combine policies: In the past, I've also combined my auto insurance policy with my renter's insurance. When I got a new car, the discount went away for some reason. But it's worked in the past, and all it took was asking if they have a multi-policy discount.
— Use a power strip: It's not worth unplugging every single device in your home that draws even the slightest amount of electricity. But some devices — like your TV or your computer — draw a significant amount, and those are worth monitoring. I connect these devices to a power strip hub so that, at night, I can turn everything off at once. For example, the power strip for my home office includes my desktop, my printer, my external hard drive and my laptop. To make it even more painless, invest in a smart power strip.
Television and Internet
— Periodic negotiating: I hate calling my provider every six months to negotiate, so it is a little painful. But you only have to do it once, and your savings continue for a while. Before I call, I look for a cheaper online rate for new customers, then I tell them I want that rate.
— Buy your own modem: Both of the Internet service providers I've used in the past seven years have charged a dumb rental rate for using their modem. But you can bypass this monthly cost by buying your own. You can probably find some pretty good eBay deals on used modems too — or check a local thrift store. Yes, you have to set it up. But do this once, and you continue to save each and every month.
— Cutting the cord, maybe: This year, I also got rid of cable. A lot of people consider this a painless way to save a sizeable amount. Most people who cancel say they don't even miss it. I have to admit: I do miss it. I'm glad I cancelled because I was watching a lot of mindless television; but I kind of miss the mindless TV, even if it was bad for me. So I didn't feel like this method was particularly painless for me because sometimes I just want to watch reruns of the Golden Girls, and now I can't. Still, it was an expensive bill. And right now, my other splurges are worth more to me.
— Switch to a discount carrier: With my old carrier, I was paying about $55 a month, which I thought was decent for unlimited talk and text and 1 GB of data. But I switched to a discount carrier and now I pay about $30 a month. I use Ting, but I've also heard good things about Republic Wireless. So far, I notice absolutely no difference in call quality, speed, etc.
— Go to happy hour: Sometimes I enjoy a nice restaurant without spending too much by checking out their happy hour menu. This is especially fun and easy when you're traveling. During our first trip to Seattle, my boyfriend and I stopped at The Palace because they had a decent happy hour. It was cheap and delicious, and it's now become a Seattle tradition for us.
— Drinks and appetizers: Half the fun of dining out, to me, is just the experience. Another way to enjoy the experience without forking over a ton of cash: just buy a drink or appetizers. For date night, my boyfriend and I have started eating dinner at home, and then we go out for drinks afterward. Our bill is a lot less and we enjoy ourselves just as much.
— Make the most out of ingredients: Meal-planning is key for this, but I'm not the best meal-planner. So I use apps and websites that help me quickly look for recipes that overlap ingredients. Supercook is my favorite.
— Use a subscription service: I signed up for Amazon Subscribe and Save. You “subscribe” to household goods on Amazon, and they deliver them to your home as regularly as you want. Shipping is free and you get a small discount. Because you can also search for the best deal, I've found that my savings are comparable to the savings I'd get using coupons or searching for in-store deals. More importantly, I set it up once and I never really have to think about it again.
And, no, they're not paying me to mention their service.
Because travel is one of my favorite splurges and it's so expensive, I'm fine with spending a little more time and effort looking for ways to save in this area. This usually includes researching prices and flying on crappy airlines, which some might consider a pain. But since this is a post about simple, painless ways to save, I'll share a few of those.
— Pack light: I use a few efficient packing tips that help ensure I never have to check a bag. For example, I recently discovered the “Skivvy Roll,” and this has been especially effective. You tightly roll up an outfit into a cylinder shape, then secure it with socks. Do it right, and you'll save space and avoid wrinkles. I also wear my heaviest stuff on the plane and utilize my shoe space. On a recent trip to Houston, I was able to carry four days' worth of stuff, and gifts for friends, in a small backpack.
Years ago, I took a two-week trip to Europe, so checking a bag was inevitable. But I accumulated some souvenirs during my travels and I didn't want to check two bags. So I decided to ship my dirty clothes home at the end of the trip, which was cheaper than buying a second bag.
— Travel on holidays: Thankfully, my family enjoys picking me up at the airport on Thanksgiving or Christmas Day (or at least they say they do), so I can fly home on these days for half the price. It's kind of fun, too.
— Buy secondhand: According to the Vimes ‘Boots' theory, it's better to spend more money on a pair of boots you'll have for ten years than to buy a cheap pair of boots you'll have to replace every year. (Confession: I once used this as a justification for buying a $200 coat.)
I'm totally on board with the argument for buying quality, but you can buy quality at a discount. Not everyone is into buying secondhand, but, well, I am. Especially if you hit up secondhand stores in affluent neighborhoods, you can find some great, cheap stuff. A lot of the clothing I've purchased at Wasteland or Crossroads or Buffalo Exchange still had price tags on it!
“But you have to wade through so much crap,” a friend once said of my secondhand habit.
Go to the right places and, no, you don't. In fact, I usually avoid the Wasteland in my neighborhood because there's so much stuff I'm tempted to buy.
— Discount movie theaters: I love the experience of going to the movies, but I usually don't need to see a movie as soon as it comes out. Discount theaters show movies that have been released for a while, and there's a great one near me. It's clean, it's quiet, they've got balcony seating and, more importantly, it's half the price of any other movie theater.
— Discount days: Most movie chains have some kind of discount day where they offer a buck or two off their ticket prices. Usually, this is on a Tuesday, and it makes for a good, discounted date night.
— Free museum days: If you've got a Bank of America account or credit card, you can get into many museums for free on the first weekend of every month. A lot of museums also have some kind of “free museum day” for all patrons.
— Becoming a concert “street team” member: I've only done this a few times, but it was so easy and so worth it. My friends have signed us up to become “street team” members for a couple of shows they've wanted to see. We got to see the show for free, and all we had to do was put a few postcards on tables before it started. In some cases, we even got free merchandise or drinks! Matisyahu was probably the most fun, and we even had a beer with the band afterward.
Categories I skipped
There are a few budget categories I didn't include: transportation — because I hardly spend anything on it since I work from home — and housing, because I haven't quite figured out a simple way to save in this area yet. Some of you have had success negotiating your rent, which sounds like a great way to save on probably the most expensive area of your budget.
At any rate, these are the most worthwhile strategies I use to stay frugal with my expenses. When I say “most worthwhile,” I mean that they're easy and painless — especially when I consider the savings.
Despite the stereotype, frugal people don't drive across town to save a penny on gas. We don't quit our jobs to coupon forty hours a week. That's not frugal. Being frugal is about optimizing your resources, and that includes your time. Not every savings method is time-consuming or difficult. Some of them are pretty simple and pretty painless.
So tell me — what are some easy and worthwhile ways you save?